Five considerations for mainstreaming innovation in development

An examination of norms and perceptions that influence the inclusivity of innovation practice in development institutions

Sophia Robele
14 min readJun 3, 2021
Art by Sophia Robele

As innovation has assumed an increasingly central place in development institutions’ narratives for catalyzing transformational change, the question of what it means and looks like to ‘mainstream’ innovation remains at the fore. In particular, a shift in focus from the capacity of innovation to yield siloed, incremental improvements in addressing local development challenges, to the role of innovation as a mentality and organizing model vital for systems transformation, demands all the more investment in the work of capability building and capability recognition. It entails moving from reliance on the ingenuity championed by a limited set of ‘innovators’ in an organization, to reckoning with what it takes to shape a culture of innovation: to embed processes that give rise to continuous cultivation and connection of the diverse forms of creativity, wisdom, and expertise possessed by all.

From my own vantage point as a development practitioner that has often operated at what I’ll call the ‘edges’ of formal innovation spaces, I have observed an interesting tension between the motivations and attempts to democratize innovation thought and practice, and the unexamined or under-examined mental models and social and institutional norms that serve to counteract that intent. Moreover, my repeated experiences of discovering examples of innovation in places that did not seem to fit the conceptual boxes I’d internalized about where innovation exists and where we are meant to be fostering it — as reinforced through the predominant language and narratives of many formal innovation spaces and channels for thought leadership — has led me to new questions of what it means for innovation to be inclusive and why perceptions matter.

Often, what is contained within the label of ‘innovation’ in an institution is in fact what is required for long-term, structural forms of social change in general. Yet our assumptions about what innovation is and is not, of who owns the processes and definitions, of where expertise is situated and validated, not only leads us to overlook the places where innovation capabilities might exist but also to ignore the places where they might be most gravely needed. In this, our questions of how to mainstream innovation must examine the norms and practices that shape these assumptions and the effects they have on our capacity to evolve as institutions and a sector more broadly.

I offer here a few considerations, as a not-quite-insider nor outsider of the innovation for development world (in part to also interrogate the basis on which I have come to perceive this distinction in the first place):

1. Recognize where language and tools become barriers.

It is through the act of naming that we assign value and concreteness to a process or idea, creating the openings for engaging with, replicating, and even developing entire fields of study and practice around certain ways of thinking and working. Yet the scaffolding that confers value to the processes often becomes the gatekeeper to accessing them: conveying the sense that to be an innovator, you must be fluent in the [continuously evolving] language of innovation. If we allow innovation to be owned by all, then it necessitates a recognition of all the places where innovation already exists, often under names and approaches that relate to the concepts behind, but likely don’t conform to the specific tools or use the precise language of, a certain innovation practice or principle. It also requires a redistribution of the power that is often maintained by the projected experts or owners of a given innovation discipline by way of treating specific language, thought frameworks, tools, or methods as the foundation of that practice.

What if, when going to work with a set of stakeholders or community on a development challenge, rather than lead with the tool or lexicon, we led with the intent? For example, if a goal is to address gaps in understanding the drivers of a complex challenge, or to ensure that the approach to designing solutions is based on the recognition of multiple future possibilities, then we may not necessarily start by facilitating a process around an existing collective intelligence or foresight tool, but first ask, how are these stakeholders already applying certain aspects of this? Maybe there is not a systematic process in place, but there are pockets of people using dialogue in ways that are cultivating meaningful relationships and generative exchanges of ideas. Maybe some of the communities implicated in tackling the challenge are already intentionally trying to construct different narratives about the future, as a guide for collective action. In starting with the intent rather than the tool, we might start by asking how we can build on, systematize and channel the ‘tools’ or processes already being used by a certain community or group of people towards some innovation goal. From there, we might then leverage and adapt aspects of our existing tools and methods to help further structure and engage with the impetus of what we find.

This is not to suggest we should disregard the value of sophisticated methods and structured processes for innovation or deny the expertise of those who have committed to mastering a given practice, but to place more emphasis on meeting people where they are, and recognizing what mental models, processes, and microcosms of innovation practice — or potential ingredients for a practice — might already be unfolding within the ecosystem we are working with, whether that be a government ministry or a population affected by an issue.

2. Apply the principles of innovation to the ways we invite people into the innovation process.

The ways by which innovation practice is brought into organizations and where and how it is cultivated often reflects a hypothesis that having a few expert ‘innovators’ – or those with innovation in their job descriptions – across an organization will allow for sufficient diffusion of the knowledge and capabilities, eventually creating tipping points for the DNA of the organization itself to transform. There is nothing wrong with operating according to a certain hypothesis, but when we treat the hypothesis as a given rather than one theory among others to be tested, we close the doors to further examination of and openness to respond to our blind spots.

If innovation approaches can help to surface assumptions, reframe problems, work with living systems, test and learn from different solutions, and draw on the wisdom of diverse stakeholders, why do we not put greater emphasis on applying these approaches to the question of how we make the innovation process itself inclusive in a given context or institution? In the case of what it takes to mainstream innovation across the myriad of cultures, relationships and networks that make up an institution, we should at minimum leverage experimentation and a design-mindset to truly understand what fosters collaboration, participation, perceived capabilities, trust, generative relationships and motivation to innovate regardless of where one sits within an institution. As part of this, we should surface the mental models that guide the predominant approaches to embedding innovation in an organization, examine who they best serve, and who they leave out: to make explicit the assumptions we are working with in the ways we seek to build capabilities, generate interest, or instigate culture change.

For example, co-creation is a central feature in many social innovation approaches — however, the methods used to elicit participation often privilege specific models of collaboration or assumptions about what generates creativity and equitable opportunities to engage. This might be seen, for instance, in the extent to which the ‘group brainstorm’ format is applied within different innovation methods. While the highly interactive–think and work out loud–everyone in the same room–sticky notes and posters model of generating ideas and formulating action might be an effective way to surface and leverage more diverse perspectives in a process than would have otherwise been the case, it might also produce certain forms of exclusion. There is a distinction in particular between helping people to come out of their comfort zone through a new approach, and recognizing when a certain format for co-design and co-creation might actually be centering certain thinking styles and modes of creativity at the expense of others. For instance, when we create spaces that encourage people to think fast, out-loud, and in the direct presence of others, we might actually miss out on the depths of wisdom to be offered by people who tend to think slow and deep and form their best ideas in solitude (or, alternatively, those who come from cultures that value alternative forms of expression, interaction or modes of communication). Making space for this way of thinking and sharing, or the variances in what brings out creativity, doesn’t mean sacrificing collaboration, but requires testing out different methods for allowing these ideas to be in conversation with the ones that might be formed in the spaces we most readily associate with innovation craft. This not only has practical implications for participation, but also affects the extent to which people perceive their unique strengths and ways of being as valuable to the innovation process, as opposed to signs that innovation must not be meant for them.

3. Make sure that those you are asking to innovate actually feel that the current system isn’t working.

While few would deny that our development processes should be inclusive of all perspectives and worldviews, or that changing a system requires understanding a system, or that we should abandon that which doesn’t work and seek to amplify and build on that which does, we don’t always stop to consider how people interpret the application of these principles within their existing work and thought frameworks. If a group of stakeholders in a development organization, for instance, feel that their mechanisms for bringing the end-users into the design and implementation of a service, or that their consultative processes for connecting citizens with government in policy development, are already ‘participatory,’ or at least participatory enough, then why would they feel motivated to invest the additional time, effort, and money into innovation aimed at generating more meaningful participation? Likewise, if their understanding of the value of participatory approaches is based primarily in an abstract notion that collaboration is important as opposed, for example, to an understanding of all the ways that their process fits within and has the capacity to shape systems of oppression, or how the levers for advancing change at the level of root causes rather than symptoms of wicked problems actually lies within the ways they design their co-creation processes, then the incentives to invest in them will remain limited. People might be willing to take part in a few workshops or be trained in an alternative approach, but the commitment to embed the methods into their work and leverage them to significantly shift their decision-making and ways of working requires a form of motivation that often starts with a fully embodied recognition of what’s at stake, including the harm one might be complicit in by failing to innovate.

Particularly within the context of government entities or development institutions, where people operate within accountability structures that often call on them to demonstrate efficient and effective progress on pre-established goals, asking people to innovate often entails asking them to work against the embedded norms of their own institution or to risk the loss of short-term credibility for the sake of a long-term vision. Often, a willingness to experiment under these conditions is sustained by the knowledge that there is no alternative: that to not try a different approach equates to an acceptance of what is, when what is is morally unacceptable. That the cost (to humanity, to our planet) of not embracing ‘failure’ and uncertainty as prerequisites for deep change is much greater than any intermediate costs of time, money, reputation, or the psychological comfort derived from operating as though all the answers are already known, that progress is linear, or that it is possible to transform societies without transforming ourselves and our relationships.

Part of the work then lies in giving voice to the ways that our processes, and the assumptions that underpin them, constitute the basis for structural change within systems. It requires that we continuously surface and articulate the connections between the seemingly benign and often unquestioned components of what we do and how we think — the ways we facilitate a project planning workshop, or define the problem space, or invite stakeholders into a co-design initiative, or construct a logframe, or identify the sources and forms of data from which to draw evidence — and the systems we seek to transform. It is reframing the value of a certain innovation approach, for instance, from simply an opportunity to make a project more effective, to an entry point into deconstructing the power imbalances and social norms by which our own processes might be perpetuating white supremacy, or creating barriers to our own ability to center the wisdom and experience of the very communities we deem critical to the resolution of a problem.

4. Harness the interdisciplinarity that exists within each person, not just in the blending of expertise from those who work in different ‘disciplines.’

Many efforts that seek to transfer skills to development practitioners and policymakers or invite them into an innovation process frame interdisciplinarity as the work of bringing different ‘disciplines’ into the room (e.g. the researcher and the practitioner, the economist and the communications specialist, the innovation expert and the subject-matter expert, the operational person and the strategy person, the project manager and the ethnographer, the artist and the engineer, the development professional and the person with ‘lived experience,’ etc.). Our approaches in turn operate with the logic that a person’s potential contributions or relevance to an innovation process lies primarily in their professional identity or positionality within an institution or project. In this, we often invite people to step ‘outside boxes’ in the sense of interacting with different people and processes, yet reify the boxes that dictate what is expected of and encouraged from them within these co-creation processes.

Most acknowledge that human beings contain multitudes, and yet we tend to deny this fact when it comes to leveraging the multitude of human capability present in any given workplace. For instance, someone who works in communications or fundraising, while not directly implicated in the design of development programmes in the context of their job, might actually have skillsets and areas of curiosity that could lend themselves to human-centered design, or ethnographic research, or being a facilitator of a co-design process. Yet the inclination is often to target the programme manager, the policy advisor, or the subject-matter expert as the most relevant change agents to upskill in design-based innovation practices within an organization. Or perhaps someone who is a data scientist by profession is a poet outside of work, yet the framing of their involvement in a co-creation exercise is premised on the analytical and data skills they can bring to the multi-stakeholder space, such that they never think to directly apply and share their artistic modes of accessing and conveying multiple forms of knowledge within the process.

It is rarely the possession of a certain skill or expertise alone that dictates if and how such capacity is applied in a given context, but rather the complex web of interactions between what someone is capable of, how they perceive the scope and relevance of their own capabilities, how others perceive them, and the relationships and social fields within which perception is shaped and capabilities invited into the world.

So how can we work against the tendency to rely on the heuristic of professional disciplines and job titles to change how and who we bring into innovation practice? At one level, it requires fostering an organizational culture that centers curiosity as a basis for collaboration and shared learning. It requires those seeking to transfer innovation skills or facilitate a multi-stakeholder process to be present with and responsive to the data points that are contained in other peoples’ curiosity, even if the questions they are asking and interests they display do not seem to align with their job descriptions. It likewise requires granting validity to and creating opportunities to surface the forms of expertise that people develop through the experiences that lie beyond their professional lives.

As part of this, one simple yet powerful practice for capability building lies in granting more ‘unlikely’ suspects for innovation direct exposure to the work of those positioned in explicit innovation roles. Something as simple as extending more staff the opportunity to ‘shadow’ someone working in innovation for a day or two or support them on a short-term project can be an entry point not only for demonstrating the application of specific innovation methods, but more broadly, for demystifying what innovation really is and all the ways that its principles can be applied. It is often through this demystification that people can in turn grasp the multiple ways in which their existing range of expertise, including lived experience, might be relevant to innovation, or alternatively, for innovation ‘experts’ to learn how to better draw out and appeal to the interests and latent capabilities of their colleagues.

Another key entry point starts with the recruitment practices that often define the boundaries of expertise for innovation roles in the first place. To acknowledge that there are multiple channels by which someone can develop the skills required for an innovation discipline, or recognize the transferable skills they might possess from other disciplines, calls for hiring practices that de-center the CV as the gatekeeper of someone’s relevance. One example of an approach that promotes greater inclusivity is Nesta’s recruitment method, which starts with a blind review process enabling applicants to showcase their innovation competencies by way of directly applying them to a set of hypothetical questions tied to the work. This preliminary written assessment in the absence of any CV information facilitates a de-coupling of someone’s ability to do the job from their past roles, places of work, or formal training.

5. Allow people to connect with the ‘heart’ of innovation.

Making innovation accessible is not merely about democratizing knowledge, skills and access to opportunities, but equally about democratizing the ‘why’ behind it. While part of the demand for a workforce to upskill in and apply innovation might be generated through top-down sources of motivation (e.g. formal accountability mechanisms, institutional procedures, articulated priorities from senior management), the cultivation of intrinsic motivation is equally critical for driving sustained learning and investment by the majority. There are as many entry points into innovation as there are issues requiring innovative solutions. Part of the work required to reorient people to the role of innovation and their relationship to it — to dismantle the impression that an innovator is only a social scientist, or a person interested in technology, or an entrepreneur — is expanding the narrative about the bridges innovation offers between purpose and practice.

I recently heard an indigenous leader of a social innovation think tank describe systems thinking as a bridge between scientific thought and indigenous wisdom. Similarly, I have often found innovation to be a bridge between my work and worldviews. My interest emerged from a recognition that the processes and principles behind many innovation disciplines are the sites where I find my spiritual beliefs and understanding of the world most closely reflected in the development world. I did not come to care about innovation because of the ways that it can bring greater relevance to an organization or a means by which certain targets can be met. I care about innovation because it is where I sense the greatest opportunity for art and mystery to feature in the scientific rigour of processes of change. I care about innovation because I cannot accept that uncertainty equates to impossibility, that 15-year timeframes for progress offer sufficient frameworks for engaging with the root causes of broken systems, or that we can afford to leave stones unturned when it comes to examining our own roles in systems and opportunities to shift power through processes. What we have termed ‘innovation’ in the development sector just happens to be where we have situated many of the openings for this long-term, deep, systemic work.

Surfacing the plurality of ‘whys,’ or potential ‘whys,’ for innovation can help to expand the possibility for a plurality of worldviews, skillsets, mindsets, and ways of being and thinking to find footing in collective innovation processes.